Putin downplays planned no-show of key Western leaders at Sochi Games
MOSCOW - Agence France-Presse
President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Russian and foreign journalists in Sochi on January 19, 2014. AFP PhotoRussian President Vladimir Putin downplayed Sunday the planned no-show of key Western leaders at the Winter Olympics in Sochi and stressed that gays were welcome as he prepared to host one of the most controversial Games in modern history.
"The Olympics is not a competition of politicians. It is a competition of athletes," Putin told reporters in a televised interview, adding that mixing sport and politics was "absolutely inappropriate".
US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande are among the leaders who have said they will not attend the top sports event, seen as Putin's pet project.
The Russian strongman criticised attempts to politicise the Olympics, saying sporting events should be used to foster international cooperation.
"Large international competitions, especially the Olympic Games, are designed to depoliticise the most acute international problems and create additional opportunities to build bridges," Putin said.
"And it would be silly not to use this opportunity. It would be even sillier to burn these bridges." He recommended Russian and US athletes who will compete in Sochi not pay attention to any political tensions between their countries.
"Politics should not affect sports but sports can and must affect politics because sports brings people closer and creates conditions to solve even difficult issues," he said.
Putin also reiterated that Russia will welcome all athletes and visitors at the Games, regardless of their sexuality, seeking to deflect repeated criticism that his policies were anti-gay.
"People have different sexual orientation. We will welcome all athletes and all guests of the Olympics," he said during the interview with foreign reporters, seeking to show off his friendly side to the West.
Gay rights activists have criticised the Russian strongman for a law banning the dissemination of so-called "gay propaganda" to minors.
But Putin insisted that gays and lesbians were not discriminated against in the country.
By way of example, he praised the openly gay British pop icon Elton John as "an outstanding person (and) outstanding musician".
"Millions of our people sincerely love him despite his orientation," Putin said.
Russia has over the past years spent more than $50 billion to build modern sports infrastructure in the Soviet-era resort of Sochi to host the world's most prestigious sporting event, which opens on February 7.
Putin has come under huge criticism abroad for Russia's dismal rights record and many have called on world leaders to boycott the games.
In an apparent bid to touch up his record, Putin pardoned the Kremlin's most famous critic, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, on humanitarian grounds after a decade in prison.
And two jailed members of protest punk band Pussy Riot were released two months early in December under a Kremlin-backed amnesty.
Thirty foreign and Russian Greenpeace activists also won an amnesty following their prosecution for an open-sea protest against Arctic oil drilling by Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Putin said on Sunday the amnesty was not related to the sporting event, denying he was seeking to improve his image in the West.
"It was not me but parliament that made the decision on amnesty," he said.
While the freed Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, called on world leaders to ignore the Games, Khodorkovsky said he was against the boycott, noting a "festival of sport should not be spoilt".
But he acknowledged it should not become a "festival of Vladimir Putin".
The Russian strongman personally championed the country's 2007 bid to host the games, which he apparently sees as one of the crowning achievements of his decade in power.
He dismissed reports that billions of dollars have been stolen during the Olympic construction as unsubstantiated.
"There are always some forces who are always fighting against everything, including against the Olympic project," he said.
Putin said Russia spent 214 billion rubles ($6.4 billion) to prepare for the Olympics, but experts estimate the entire cost of hosting the games at more than $50 billion.